A Dicey Way Out of Dilemmas

A Dicey Way Out of Dilemmas June 13, 2013

In response to yesterday’s post on breaking promises, KristeninDallas made an alternate suggestion:

I’m not saying he should keep his promise, but I am saying he should feel at least a little bad about breaking it. We seem to have this need to rationalize everything and figure out the best choice and then pat ourselves on the back/ let ourselves off the hook when we make it. When we’re choosing between two clear goods, the pat is well earned. But when choosing the lesser of evils, I think we need to get over ourselves. We’re still chosing evil – and if we’ve walked down the wrong road so far that those are our only two choices, we do share in some of the blame. The doctor is already guilty of making a frivolous promise. So why can’t we just say that he should do right by the innocent man, which will mean doing wrong by the patient, and then appolgize to the patient for the wrong he did (or confess to someone else if that isn’t possible). The doctor isn’t a bad guy, but we all sin – owning some of the guilt when we do can be a good thing. It’ll help him think twice about his own capabilities and limits before making a breakable promise in the future

I think that having to keep a promise he regrets will also make the doctor think more carefully when making them in the future, but that’s not my real disagreement with Kristen’s comment.  I agree that people should notice when they (or someone/something else) have gotten themselves into a situation where they’re going to have to betray/harm someone.  But I’m concerned that instead of being spurred to avoid these kinds of situations in the first place, we have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back for making “the hard choice” and being modern day sin-eaters.

A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat noted that shows of regret (internal or external) can take the moral pressure off our choices.  “Gosh,” we say to ourselves, “this is pretty awful.  If I get the chance to undo it, I definitely will.”  But that thought can bring a kind of relief that let’s us look a little less intensely for an out in the moment or a way to avoid the situation again.  Once we’ve noticed that “this isn’t the kind of thing I should do” it’s easy to slide to “this isn’t the sort of thing I do do” and disconnect from the fact we’re still doing it.  Douthat wrote:

This willingness to grapple with moral complexity has always been one of the things that Obama’s admirers love about him, and even liberals who feel disappointed with his national security record still seem grateful for the change from George W. Bush. If we have to have an imperial president, their attitude seems to be, better to have one who shows some “anguish over the difficult trade-offs that perpetual war poses to a free society” (as The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer put it on Friday), rather than falling back on “the secrecy and winking smugness of the past.”

I am not particularly nostalgic for the Bush era either. But Obama’s Reinhold Niebuhr act comes with potential costs of its own. While the last president exuded a cowboyish certainty, this president is constantly examining his conscience in public — but if their policies are basically the same, the latter is no less of a performance. And there are ways in which it may be a more fundamentally dishonest one, because it perpetually promises harmonies that can’t be achieved and policy shifts that won’t actually be delivered…

There is no good reason to overpromise yet again. Where the United States can step back from a wartime footing, we absolutely should. But where we don’t actually intend to, we should be forthright about it — rather than pretending that change is perpetually just around the corner, and behaving as though our choices are justified by how much anguish we express while making them.

The rhetoric of regret can pacify an audience and embolden the speaker.  Studies in cognitive science show we fall prey to the consistency effect, where we constantly reinterpret or confabulate past events to imagine how they fit in with a consistent, admirable identity for ourselves.  My friend Squelchtoad noticed a way this pattern can play out when you start finding clever, necessary exceptions to moral injunctions:

Obama does not display a bleeding heart. He has proved himself willing to commit “necessary evils” if the alternative is a greater evil. I worry that he has begun to let the evilness an action cause him to overrate the necessity of that action. After all, surely cheating works better than following the rules! And cheating is transgressive and therefore fun

Herein lies the problem, perhaps, with encouraging people to conceive of themselves as what some of my geekier friends might call “Chaotic Good.”

If you break the rules, ostensibly for the sake of the greater good, you may become desensitized. You then no longer hesitate before breaking the rules to check whether it’s really “worth it.” You perhaps come to enjoy breaking the rules and to enjoy thinking of yourself as a pragmatic, manipulative operator. You perhaps even begin to commit, without thinking, a logical error: because you “know” that you only allow yourself to take evil actions when they are necessary, any evil action you consider taking must therefore be the only means of achieving something necessary. The more any of these things happen, the more likely you become to commit unnecessary evils.


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